Pedestrian Pittsburgh: “Will You Be My Compass?”

I walked around Pittsburgh on a recent Saturday afternoon with my friends Allison and Tara. Allison grew up in the Pittsburgh-area and returned to the city this summer after five years in Boston. Tara moved to Pittsburgh from the Bay Area in 2008 to work at the Carnegie Library. I invited them on a walk because Boston and the Bay Area frequently get named the best walking cities in the country. So I figured Allison and Tara would be good subjects for launching a column about walking and daily life in Pittsburgh.

Allison came of age as a walker in Boston. During her final years in Pittsburgh, she lived in the town-and-gown neighborhood of Oakland and walked mostly to classes and friends’ houses. Huge swaths of the city seemed beyond walking distance, she said, and it wasn’t until she walked Boston every day that she “realized how not-far a mile is.” In Boston, she chose walking even over public transportation, if she could. She felt stifled on the bus; she couldn’t stop to explore. She’s an introverted walker, listening to music or talking on the phone, but she takes a lot of photographs, primarily of interesting objects.

For that kind of walking, she said, Pittsburgh beats Boston. Boston was flat, safe and clean. “Now that I’m back here I realize how boring it was,” she said. A pulse beats in Pittsburgh’s wrists; some say the strong echo of a former pulse. Graffiti on lampposts. Faded advertisements painted on brick walls. Anonymous amateur art anchoring private lawns. Cobblestone alleyways. Hidden dedication plaques high on building fronts. In Boston, “if you walk down a street like Comm Ave, it’s just brownstones for blocks.”

Like many locals, Allison understands Pittsburgh’s soul better than its body: “I’ve lived in Pittsburgh most of my life and I couldn’t draw you a map.” She said that Bostonians gave directions using street names, but Pittsburghers use landmarks: Stay on this road until you get to a five-way intersection and turn left at the gas station. Landmarks change more often than street names, though, and in time, most Pittsburghers switch to former landmarks: Remember that weird corner store? Go where that used to be and turn right.

Everyone is a cartographer, using daily life to map his or her city. Walkers, though, carry around more ethereal maps in their minds than drivers or cyclists. Calves don’t record distances by counting up numbers, like odometers. The right smell or sound can point the way as surely as any sight, and memories often dictate which routes to take or avoid.

Tara grew up in a small town in Oregon and hitched a ride to San Francisco at 20, looking for something new. This was during the dot-com boom, when people were coming to the Bay Area from all over and the city faced a housing shortage. She’d look at an apartment for rent only to discover it was actually a closet, and several briefcase-wielding men in business suits would already be there, handing their references and proof of employment to the potential landlord. “I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have a car, so I walked everywhere,” Tara said. Epic walks: eight miles from the Outer Mission to North Beach. “Sometimes I look at maps, and I think, ‘I can’t believe I walked this,” she said.

image by Tara Goe

Tara did a project a few years ago called “Will You Be My Compass?” Before leaving on a trip to Europe, she asked friends and strangers from the Bay Area to suggest places for her to visit abroad, and to draw her a map on the spot. “It’s almost like I was trying to retrace people’s memories,” she said. And like memories, the maps people drew have rambling priorities. Landmarks loom large, while roads often get reduced to sketchy hash marks. Some maps lead her right where she needed to go. (“Some people have such concise memories!” she said.) Others were harder to follow. One friend directed her to a café and she ended up at a Parisian biker bar. She missed the café because she expected something special. It ended up being fairly plain. The only reason her friend remembered the place was because he went there every morning with the first great love of his life.

image courtesy Tara Goe

*            *            *

We walked three miles through Bloomfield and Lawrenceville, two neighborhoods in a valley carved by the ancestral Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers. The modern versions of those rivers now bound the East End of the city and meet Downtown to form the Ohio.

We set out in mid-afternoon on a 90-degree day and cut through the Allegheny Cemetery for some quiet and shade. The cemetery covers 300 acres, and, with around 124,000 inhabitants, is heavily populated; for every two and a half living Pittsburghers, one dead Pittsburgher resides for eternity in the soils of Allegheny Cemetery. The oldest dead there died in the mid-1800s, leaving behind colossal mausoleums, phallic obelisks, ornate headstones and other semi-successful attempts to erect eternal legacies from limestone. A third of the acreage is undeveloped, waiting patiently. About 15 miles of road course through the cemetery, a path folded over on itself like brain lobes (or like a meditation labyrinth, as Tara pleasantly described it). It’s easy to lose your sense of direction not far from the iron gates. In that sense, the cemetery is a microcosm of the entire city.

photograph by Allison Rowland

Pittsburgh grew inward, not outward. Tiny settlements spread across the area merged into one large city. Connecting them yielded bizarre five-way intersections, an abundance of bridges and tunnels, magical shortcuts and scenic routes, all compressed into what the New York Times once described as “no discernable street grid.” Living inside that layout influences how locals think. The mental maps you find in Pittsburgh range from personal to self-centered. A city guide from the mid-1990s noted that Pittsburghers memorize routes. They remember how to get from place to place, not how to get around town.

A charming moment Pittsburghers talk about often is seeing some building far away, sometimes for years, without ever knowing how to get to it, and then one day, by taking a wrong turn or attempting a new route, landing suddenly at its feet. We ended the day with one of those moments. From the exit of the cemetery, Allison, Tara and I looped back up to Liberty Avenue, the main drag through Bloomfield. We bought beer and descended the concrete steps through the overgrowth that hides a ravine beneath the Bloomfield Bridge.

Being flat and hidden, the ravine is a natural transportation corridor, home to railroad tracks, the East Busway and a modest road called Sassafras Street bearing DIY street signs: “Watch for Ghosts” or the words “Try, Try, Try” on the steep steps leading out.

Before construction of the original bridge in 1914, Bloomfield and Lawrenceville were somewhat isolated from neighboring Oakland, which at the time was the cultural center of the city, home to the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Carnegie Library, the grand Schenley Hotel, many private clubs and the now demolished Forbes Field, where the Pittsburgh Pirates once played. Today, the ravine is a classic Pittsburgh nook, one of those magical places where your internal GPS goes blank. You could be anywhere.

Weeks earlier, walking the Bloomfield Bridge, I saw an illuminated rooftop tucked in the woods 150 feet below. When we got into the ravine, we found the building. It was called Iron Eden, a workshop/sanctuary devoted to ferrous metal. The owner let us explore his spindly and hulking sculptures. We climbed a spiral staircase up to the roof. Even from up there, we couldn’t get a sense of the property. Miniature nooks held small shacks, but hillsides and trees obscured the paths leading to each. But the source of the illumination became obvious: lampposts line the roof. Each lamp is encased in an iron sculpture, rings and orbits and flaming tendrils, like two-dozen tiny planets on a pinky nail of the city.

A man in a baseball cap crossing the Bloomfield Bridge stared down at Iron Eden from above. We waved up to him. He didn’t notice us at first, but then he waved back.

Surely Pittsburgh felt different before its bridges and odd roads, when walking from one neighborhood to another demanded dedication, but probably no less confusing. The roadways only highlighted qualities inherent in the landscape. Before the French and Indian War when the Europeans arrived in earnest to develop this area into the city it eventually became, every map of Pittsburgh would have been personal and imaginary.

NOTE: I wrote this a few months ago for McSweeney’s annual columnist contest. (The “recent” in the first sentence refers to a Saturday in July.) They didn’t pick it, (although they  did pick a column by B.J. Isenberg, my friend and fellow Pittsburgh wordsmith, called “Playing Doctor”). Here was my description of how the column would have progressed:

Pedestrian Pittsburgh will showcase daily life in Pittsburgh by walking the city. Because Pittsburgh toggles between being one-of-a-kind and somewhat ho-hum, its street-level stories are both fascinating and familiar. I’ll base each column on a specific walk through the city, sometimes alone and sometimes with a partner, and, like a good walk, I’ll reach a destination, though not always by the most direct route. The column will combine sights, sounds and smells, historic notes, interviews with locals and meditations on daily life in an American city. It will be written for readers who have never been to Pittsburgh.

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